The end of September cannot come soon enough for the Group of Five conferences, with the partial exception of the MAC.
In the underclass of the Football Bowl Subdivision, only two small pockets of programs have avoided carnage: The MAC’s West Division has been a rare bright spot on a landscape shrouded in darkness. Otherwise, the Group of Five can merely tout Houston, Boise State, and San Diego State… and hope that those exceptional standouts will make everyone forget how impoverished these conferences actually are.
At the end of the (main) non-conference portion of the season — with non-league games largely giving way to conference contests from now on — any “G-5 Summit” agenda would talk about the need for a ceasefire.
Group of Five programs have been bloodied in non-conference play. Their retreat into the familiarity of conference competition has arrived just in time.
The American is getting better at the very bottom — UCF and Tulane are clearly rising — but the top half of the league is weaker than it was a year ago. Temple has lost twice, matching its total from the 12-game slate in 2015. The Owls didn’t lose a third game until the AAC Championship Game against Houston. Navy is still unbeaten, but the Midshipmen needed Connecticut coach Bob Diaco to mess up the endgame sequence in order to avoid a loss. They also trailed Tulane by a point with just over three minutes left in regulation.
Memphis might be the only AAC team which can stand in Houston’s way before the league championship game. If South Florida runs the table to finish 11-1, and Memphis puts up a good fight in the AAC West, the league could redeem itself, but September diminished the conference. A majority of the East Division (four of six teams) sits at .500, saddled with two losses per team. UCF’s 2-2 might be a “good” 2-2, but UConn, Temple and East Carolina have all suffered bad losses (to Syracuse, Army and South Carolina, respectively).
If South Florida and Memphis don’t thrive in October and November, everyone will look upon The American as “Houston and the 11 Dwarfs” in 2016.
The larger reality is damning enough for the Mountain West — only three of the league’s 12 programs have winning records through four weeks. However, the poor performance of the league is more dramatically highlighted (or lowlighted, one could say) by the inability of a middle-of-the-road MWC team — Nevada — failing to beat a Power Five bottom feeder, Purdue. That’s precisely the kind of game a decent Group of Five team (and conference) must win.
Also over the weekend, UNLV dropped a home game to Idaho of the Sun Belt. The MWC — either when playing the Power Five or a lower-tier G-5 conference — has stubbed its toe often enough for others to take notice. Air Force might be the only team capable of preventing the league from being known as the Boise State-San Diego State Show.
One thing has to be said for The American (Houston, maybe South Florida) and the Mountain West (Boise State and SDSU): At least they have one or two high-level teams. In Conference USA and the Sun Belt, no such standout exists.
In the cover photo for this story, you can see Vanderbilt players celebrating a win over Conference USA’s defending champion, Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers racked up 501 yards, but committed two turnovers inside the Vanderbilt 10 and missed relatively easy tackles on the Commodores’ game-tying drive in the final minute of regulation. WKU’s loss means that in a 13-team league, only two teams — Middle Tennessee and Southern Mississippi — have winning records at the end of September. Moreover, Vanderbilt has beaten both WKU and Middle Tennessee, a very bad look for C-USA. There is no positive outlook, no encouraging spin, to be found.
In the Sun Belt, only two of 11 teams have winning records: Georgia Southern and Troy. Georgia Southern’s 3-1 mark is built on the strength of a 2-0 conference record. Troy — which has looked good — is nevertheless 3-1 with a league win and an FCS win. In other words, the Trojans are 1-1 in non-conference FBS-only games. Group of Five programs have had a dreadful time lifting themselves above Power Five opponents.
Is there any hope for Group of Five teams beyond the exceptional cases in Houston, Boise and San Diego? Only one conference has provided optimism thus far: the MAC, specifically its West Division.
The MAC East might be a mess, with Bowling Green in tatters and Ohio having lost at home to Texas State, but the MAC West is a genuine source of the happiness and satisfaction other G-5 conferences simply haven’t experienced this season.
Northern Illinois might be suffering, but the rest of the MAC West is throwing a party. Eastern Michigan is 3-1 for the first time since 1995. Central Michigan might have lost to Virginia, but its win at Oklahoma State still leaves the Chippewas at 3-1. Ball State, searching for its first bowl win, is 3-1.
Then come the heavyweights. Toledo — like Bowling Green, equipped with a first-year head coach — has maintained its level of quality, unlike the sliding Falcons. Western Michigan has sprinted to a 4-0 start, scoring victories over two Power Five teams (Northwestern and Illinois) plus an upper-tier Group of Five team, Georgia Southern.
If Houston loses twice while Boise State (or Air Force) and San Diego State lose at least once in advance of the Mountain West Championship Game, an unbeaten Western Michigan team would have a shot at the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl slot. The Broncos need a lot of help, but they’re in the conversation. If the MAC West can dominate the MAC East, it will be easier to view Western Michigan as the survivor of a tough division, a team worthy of heightened status in the Group of Five realm.
What has happened in the MAC West, though, is the exception which proves the rule. Most G-5 conferences — and the divisions within them — have not been able to keep their heads above water in non-conference clashes.
The nasty and cruel part of a bad September for a Group of Five conference is that if its member schools improve in October and November, national observers will say that the weakness of the conference is why those teams stopped losing.
In more complicated circumstances, that charge might be unfair. In 2016, it is — and will be — very difficult to escape that kind of conclusion.
Houston, Boise State, and San Diego State — maybe South Florida and Western Michigan, even Memphis — could give the Group of Five a special moment by the time this season is done. Beyond that small cluster of teams, though, the vast majority of the little guys in the FBS have already slipped into the shadows.